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When Personal Politics Distorts Jewish History

When Personal Politics Distorts Jewish History

When the Israeli historian Shlomo Sand released his book “The Invention of the Jewish People” in America a few months ago, journalists here wondered if it would attract the same attention it did abroad. It was a bestseller in Israel upon its initial release in 2008, and later won the French journalists’ highest honor, the Aujourd’hui Award. So far, however, the book has made little impact here.

Yet the book’s central claim — that the idea of a unified Jewish people is a Zionist myth, with a strong racial component — has drawn intense scrutiny. Hillel Halkin, in The New Republic, rightly criticized Sand for assuming that the origins of collective Jewish identity lie in 19th-century Zionism. To the contrary, Halkin wrote, Zionism was only “a modern re-conceptualization of [a shared Jewish identity] that was based on its long-standing prior existence.”

But Sand’s critics have not explained why readers here might be indifferent to the book. One reason may be that Sand goes to great lengths to incriminate a reading of Jewish identity that few take seriously. Namely, he thinks that Jews feel connected to one another, first and foremost, because they see themselves as an ethnically homogenous group that can trace their blood ancestry to ancient Judea.

This is absurd. It goes without saying that anyone who looks at the cultural diversity of Jews around the world today — from Spain to Uzbekistan, from India to Asia — would not base his or her identity on a common blood lineage that harks back to the Bible.

But genetics is only the newest manifestation of Jewish ethnocentricity, Sand argues. The broader issue animating his book is Israeli politics. And, to be fair, the problem he raises is worth taking seriously — that sooner or later, Israel may face dire, potentially violent consequences if Jews are granted more legal rights than its non-Jewish population. When rabbis have the sole right to define who is a Jew, and therefore determine who can gain citizenship, it is an ethnic democracy, Sand writes, not a liberal one.

And yet “ethnic” is a deliberately misleading term that only suits Sand’s agenda. What he really is describing is the problem of a democracy that gives legal preference to one religion, even if it accommodates others. That deliberate distinction of terms leads him to devote much of the book to an argument that does a woeful disservice to his field, the study of history. Most of his book traces how scholars of Jewish history, from the 19th-century pioneer Heinrich Graetz to Columbia University’s towering historian Salo Wittmayer Baron, deliberately fabricated an ancient Jewish past.

Essentially, his argument is that Jewish scholars — many of them icons in the field — chose to read the Bible as a literal text. By doing so, they were able to downplay newer evidence that may have contradicted their claim of ethnic homogeneity. Thus, historians played a central role in advancing the myth that all Jews descended from the Bible, were exiled, and had a historical claim to the land. For early secular Zionists, in other words, history replaced religion.

Sand raises facts known to any student of Jewish history, like the forced conversion of Edomites by the Judean Hasmonean king in the second century BCE, or the conversion of the Khazarian empire in the eighth-century CE. Yet a contradiction lies at the heart of his thesis: the counter-factual evidence he cites was itself discovered or discussed by the same historians he deplores.

To get around this, Sand is at pains to show how they manipulated the unsavory details so that the blemish of un-pure Judean origins was minimized. For instance, he argues that Salo Baron — who “did not hesitate to tackle the Khazar conundrum” despite his “essentially ethnocentric outlook” — emphasized that the Jewish Khazars that remained after the empire was destroyed in the 10th century were mainly the descendants of Jews who immigrated to Khazar and helped convert the empire in the first place. Thus the biological lineage remained unbroken.

In interviews, Sand has denounced his critics who say that he has no right to attack a field of history in which he has no expertise. His training is in modern European history, not Jewish history, they say, so how can he discuss the field with any real authority? But he seems to have missed the point of this criticism. It’s not that he’s improperly credentialed; it’s that he lacks the training to assess the truth of the history he attacks — and he hasn’t even tried to acquire it.

Instead, he’s subjugated difficult historical questions to his own personal politics, in effect committing the same sin he accuses his colleagues of. He has undertaken a grossly selective reading of secondary sources, without any attempt of gauging the underlying evidence, and highlighted only those texts — some discredited, others not — that fit his ethnocentric thesis. I am sorry for his readers, and sorry for a great many historians. n

Eric Herschthal covers arts and culture for the paper.

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